First Reformed Blu-ray Review
Ernst Toller sits at a desk, pen to pad, writing in his journal. It is a way, he notes, to communicate and a form of prayer. He challenges himself to utilize the task for a year. All mistakes–say, an undotted i or a misused word–will remain.
Awaiting him is only a handful of worshippers. The First Reformed church, while hundreds of years old, has seen far better days, and now relies mostly on funds from a nearby megachurch, run by Pastor Jeffers (Cedric Kyles, better known as Cedric the Entertainer). Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke, MAUDIE) does not like asking for favors, but is aware of just how important it can be to seek help. He is visited one day by Mary Mensana (Amanda Seyfried, THE LAST WORD), who has recently found out she is pregnant. She welcomes the pregnancy, but is met with push by her husband, Michael (Phillip Ettinger, COMPLIANCE), a member of an environmentalist group who can’t imagine raising a child in such a world.
Toller has his own demons, his own doubts. The son he urged to go into the military was killed in Iraq; his wife, unable to cope, left him; his health is showing clear signs of decay. He wishes to help, as is his nature, but there is much still to be tended to on his end.
There are heavy themes weaved throughout FIRST REFORMED. It would be easy to let all of these–illness, death, environmental crisis, to check off a few–weigh down the film, to make it exhaust the audience by utter relentlessness in convincing them that, yes, this is a serious drama film. This is a heavy film, certainly, but writer/director Paul Schrader keeps a steady enough hand where nothing in the content feels forced. (There are some believability issues with a subplot involving Mary, but it’s approached seriously enough where it doesn’t hinder what has come before and after it.)
There are stunning moments in FIRST REFORMED, some that shock through sight and others than present complexity through conversations. These offer a jolt, sometimes subtly, that put so much at stake. All are handled expertly, showing in part that Schrader, whose career dates back to the mid-’70s, still has much to offer.
To see these actors handle all of this, too, is a treat. Ettinger does much with such little screentime; Seyfried is at her best, demonstrating her dramatic abilities at a dimension we had yet to see; and Hawke is near his best, developing one of the most fascinating characters of his kind.
FIRST REFORMED is not what might be considered an “easy” watch. It will challenge the viewer and perhaps make them ask certain questions of themselves regarding ideas of forgiveness, grief and more. It sticks, through its themes and through its genuine approach, better than nearly any movie this year.
Video: 1.33:1 in 1080p with MPEG-4 AVC codec. Details are strong and colors, while limited in palette and quite muted, show up accurately.
Audio: English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. Subtitles in English and Spanish. Dialogue is without flaw and the atmospheric sounds (birds, the echoes of the church) are natural.
Audio commentary with director Paul Schrader: Schrader offers a pretty strong commentary, going into personal and production details for the duration.
Discernment: Contemplating FIRST REFORMED (15:43): Interviews (with Schrader, Ethan Hawke and Cedric Kyles) and behind-the-scenes footage provide an overview of the plot, characters and production.